Hackernoon logoThe LTE Apple Watch: New Value and New Applications by@jorge.serna

The LTE Apple Watch: New Value and New Applications

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Jorge Serna

The connectivity improvements in the LTE Apple Watch will bring additional value that can drive developers to fulfill its promise

In my previous post, I talked about how the key to turn the release of an LTE-enabled Apple Watch into a new connected device ecosystem was the interaction between two elements:

  • New behaviors from some users, overcoming the anxiety of leaving their phone behind, and feeling comfortable with just the Watch in some occasions (some occasions, not all or even most of the time)
  • Developers creating new experiences for this Watch-only mode, treating it as an independent device and not an accessory, which will make the Watch more useful by itself, reinforcing that new user behavior.

In this new post I want to take a look at what users will be able to do with an “out of the box” Watch, which will help the first point; and then think about what other things developers will bring, improving the second point and feeding this virtuous cycle for the Apple Watch ecosystem.

Out of the box New Value

The LTE Apple Watch will include cellular connectivity that will make it an always-on device, not requiring an iPhone close by to be connected to the Internet. Apple may include additional applications in their WatchOS version for this device to leverage this connectivity, but even if they don’t, some of their basic existing functions will change significantly. In particular:

  • Music. Currently Apple Watch owners can choose some playlist and albums from their phone that they want to get locally into the Watch, with a 2GB storage limit. This is oriented to runners, as it allows users to play music via Bluetooth earphones without requiring to carry their phone. But with an LTE connection available, this limitation can go away, as users could access their full iTunes library or all the content from Apple Music directly from their wrist. That would make the Apple Watch the ultimate replacement for the recently “deceased” iPod Shuffle.
  • Maps and guidance. The Maps application in the Watch currently gives directions to the user by providing haptic feedback. That feedback allows the user to “feel” whether the turn they need to take in a few steps is to the right or to the left. But to search a destination or to get direction, the Watch application needs connectivity provided by an iPhone. The LTE Watch would change this, as getting around would be possible even if you left your phone behind.
  • Communications. This will be the main feature to help overcome the anxiety of leaving the phone at home, as it will keep users reachable. Today, an Apple Watch user can get notifications from texts and calls in their wrist, and they can answer them with a simple tap or using Siri dictation. It is true that, when on a Wifi connection, this functions are also available for iMessage and FaceTime audio, even with no phone around, but expecting a Wifi is not enough to feel always-on. But, with an LTE connection, this would be also true when walking (or running) around. And that will help users to feel more confident about leaving their phone. The out of the box experience for Apple Watch will be limited to iMessage and FaceTime audio, but we can also expect some operators to extend their current multi-device offerings to also include Apple Watch calls and texts. In particular, AT&T NumberSync already leverages native capabilities to provide users the ability to get their regular calls and texts across their Apple devices, so I expect they will get this working from day one in the LTE Watch.
  • Siri. And some of the interaction for the services above, like finding a specific song to play, providing a destination for directions, or dictating a text message, will be supported by Siri. But now Siri will not require the connectivity from a close iPhone to do all of this: it will work directly from the LTE connectivity in the Watch. This will make the interaction in the Watch faster than it is today, and so become the main way to interact with services on a tiny screen. It is also a trend in the expectations for interaction for “the next billion connected users”, which makes the central place it will have in the new ecosystem even more relevant.

Interestingly, all of these uses (music, calling and text dictation, Siri) benefit from interacting with the Watch using voice and getting audio feedback. That is why AirPods will also play also a big role in making the LTE Apple Watch a success, and why the hints of Apple releasing it were in how they presented AirPods originally and how they covered new WatchOS features this year. This is the smartphone disintegration trend: a process by which value delivered by a single device (the phone) will increasingly be split across devices (Apple Watch and AirPods), but those devices in turn will be (physically) closer to the user and more integrated in their life.

New Applications

And once the basic value of the Watch is increased, with the new connectivity and the new things that can be done with it, and some users start to sometimes leave their phones behind, developers will be more driven to reach those phone-less users.

What will we see in those apps, that will be more interesting that what we get today in the Watch? Let’s make a few guesses:

  • Music. Yes, we have mentioned the ability to access the full Apple Music library on the go, but once the developers are able to do this, why not also get Spotify? And what about Podcasts? Now that getting content on the go is possible, you will not need the content in your phone, you can get it from your wrist. And while there is a Shazam Watch app today, it currently uses the microphone in the iPhone to do the song recognition, which provides a quite poor performance without taking it out of your pocket. But with an LTE connection and access to the Watch microphone, you could be listening to a song, and simply catch it and add it to your library with a couple of taps on your wrist.
  • More alternatives to Communication. With the LTE Watch you will get out of the box iMessages and FaceTime audio, but then developers will also enable Facebook Messenger, Telegram or Skype, providing you a wider universal reach while on the go, no phone required. iMessage and Facebook Messenger would be enough for this to be a relevant communication endpoint in the US market, but for this to get global other players would be needed, particularly WhatsApp. Unfortunately, to get WhatsApp working on an LTE Apple Watch in a standalone way, first they will need to get their service ready for multi-device. And that can be a threat to WhatsApp, as some power users decide to move some conversations to a new tool (like Telegram) that conveniently allows them to leave their phone at home.
  • Payments. The Apple Watch already offers Apple Pay and can be used to make purchases without requiring an iPhone. But sometimes its use can be a bit unsettling, because sometimes you get a confirmation from the Watch that the card was read ok, only to get an error later from the payment terminal . Then you have to pay again, unsure if your credit card will be charged twice. A simple bank application in the Watch could provide a notification when a Watch payment is complete, or a way to check your latest operation, which would bring users enough phone-less peace of mind. On top of that, if Apple opens some access to the NFC chip in the Watch, as it has announced will do for the iPhone, alternative payment mechanisms, or access to public transportation (like London’s Oyster card) could be available in your wrist without requiring a phone.
  • Getting a ride. Uber, Lyft or Gett apps for the Watch could ensure you can get a car wherever you are. Being able to call a ride to your current location, track their distance, and pay as you leave, all from your wrist, would bring the freedom of a phone without needing to carry one.
  • Completely new experiences. Right now you can use your Apple Watch as a companion experience for a game, with Pokémon GO being a good example. And while today you still have to carry your phone around to use the game from your wrist, it would make a lot of sense to be able to go phone-less to be able to hatch eggs, spin Pokéstops and even catch some Pocket Monsters. But going forward I can see the Watch being used as a stand alone experience for other pseudo-AR games based on real world interaction. GPS location and Internet connectivity in the wrist could bring out a player-versus-player virtual paintball experience to the streets. And thinking about games enabled by a connected, location aware device, would not be this the ideal device to become the “first smartphone” for kids, to bring peace of mind to their parents? Probably Life360 will also be one of the first developers to offer a connected Watch application.

As this kind of applications — and many others I cannot even imagine — become available, the situations in which the Watch will be more than enough to cover the needs for users will also increase. And this kind of use will become more frequent (again, not exclusive, but something that will no longer be able to be ignored by developers). And the incentives to create more Watch apps will also grow…

This would be the cycle that could create a lush ecosystem around a new kind of connected device.

What needs to be fixed first

But for this to become a reality, fixing some current issues in the Apple Watch is critical. Otherwise customers will not be confident enough to leave phones behind, and developers will not follow by creating new apps. I am particularly concerned about two problems coming from my experience as an Apple Watch first generation user. These issues may have been improved with the second generation Apple Watch, but if not, it is fundamental that are covered in the third generation:

  • Performance. Sometimes, when opening an app in the Apple Watch can take more than 10 seconds (!). And this happens not only to third party apps, but even to basic functions like the Settings native application. The expectation for a simple interaction from your wrist is that it should also be (almost) instantaneous, otherwise it will generate fatigue and lack of trust, getting users away from the Watch and bringing them back to their phones.
Sometimes I get this spinning circle for 15 seconds before being able to use my Apple Watch.
  • Battery life. For users to safely be willing to leave their phone behind without anxiety, battery life must allow them to make sure they can use the Watch. I believe a full day of usage would be enough, although many people complain that it is inconvenient to charge a Watch every day. I don’t expect the battery to last a week, but in my case the Apple Watch struggles to last a full day if I use it for something more than just check the time. So with the additional battery usage the LTE radio will bring, and additional app usage when going phone-less, there is a big increase of battery capacity or efficiency required in the device.

Those problems, which have been there since the first generation device and that will only get worse with cellular connectivity, can be the biggest enemies for Apple to create a new ecosystem that can help them build a new cycle for device replacement and disintegrate the smartphone.


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